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IAIN McDOWELL Q@A

Written by LJ Hurst

Iain MacDowell Introduction Picture

“Iain McDowall” is the author of the Crowby series of crime novels, which started with A STUDY IN DEATH (2000), continued with MAKING A KILLING (2001) and PERFECTLY DEAD (2003), with the fourth, entitled KILLING FOR ENGLAND, due from Piatkus in July 2005. Crowby is a city in the south part of the West Midlands, somewhat like Coventry.

Iain McDowall, isn't Crowby just the Place of the Crow, a place of venal carrion, where most of the residents have dirty secrets if they are not criminal, the police are not much better, and the victims of all the crime in the city are almost deranged? This seems most obvious in MAKING A KILLING where even the parents of a rape victim disturb the police.

Perhaps it is - with some qualifications. The Crowby novels are Condition-Of-England novels to a certain extent. Of necessity, they reflect the fact that the UK has pretty much undergone a comprehensive morality-and-decency by-pass in recent decades. Partly that's been a matter of politics: the tragedy of Thatcherism compounded by the farce of New Labour. But it's also a question of style and temperament. British people like to be nasty to

each other. We're under the illusion that this makes us cool - despite our polluted streets, our crap food and our lousy weather. In a novel, you're focussing on the heightened reality of this situation of course. Plus, in Crowby, (black) humour punctuates the darkness. Yes it really is as bad as that out there. But fortunately it's not as bad as that all of the time - or for all of us. I think that maybe we read and write crime fiction as a kind of inoculation. It injects a tiny controlled dose of the poison inside you: hopefully enough to act as an antidote against bigger, more dangerous doses. Like wearing an amulet to ward off evil.

 

When I read your second novel, I thought that Crowby had grown. On re-reading the city is the same size, but you have spent more time describing getting from A to B, which makes the city size obvious. Did you feel you had to do that?

 [I’m not certain whether Crowby is a city or a big town. I’ve not found the cathedral yet anyway.] The first time you visit a town, you only really take in the main streets and the obvious landmarks. If you end up living there, eventually you’ll map out its obscure corners, its hidden places. That’s exactly how it is with Crowby. The more often I go there, the more I find to report back on. And the greater the level of cartographical detail I retain - both for the social geography and for the physical geography.

 

Towns such as the picturesque Wynarth outside, and estates on the city’s edge are mentioned early on and are centres of action in the later books, but I had some problems with characters trying to use the M42. How fixed is the geography of Crowby in your mind?

Crowby has always been a mental landscape as well as a geographical one. I liked Andrew Taylor’s comment that Crowby was ‘a state of mind’ as much as a fictional town. If you drive around Britain a lot these days, you get a real sense of de-location: places that look just like other places - same out-of-town shopping centres, same theme pubs, same demarcations between affluence and deprivation. So, in that sense, Crowby is any alienated urban landscape. That said, its specific physical characteristics are rooted in the big conurbations around Birmingham: hence the use of the M42 (though I always advise my characters to avoid the rush hour). One of the appeals, to me, of fictional towns is that they can relate as precisely or imprecisely as the writer wants to real geographies. They’re also highly liberating in terms of subject matter. I can say things about fictional people and fictional institutions in a fictional place that would probably be censored out for a ‘real’ location.

 

Book Jacket, A Study In Death

A STUDY IN DEATH is set in the mid-nineties, five years or so before publication date, while your other novels have been set contemporaneously. Do your readers ever comment on this difference in periods?

They do. And it’s good to have a chance to explain. I’ve always written contemporaneously, reacting to or commenting on current events within the books (recently the invasion of Iraq for instance). I wrote A STUDY IN DEATH in the mid-nineties, as you say, and set it then too. Unfortunately, the usual struggles of an unknown author to secure a publishing contract meant that it didn’t see the light of day until late 2000 (2001 for the paperback). I didn’t carry on writing in the meantime either - being too busy with other projects and also, frankly, unwilling to write anything else until the publishing industry came to its senses and consented to put my stuff out. When I picked up my pen again with a series book deal in my back pocket, I carried on with the contemporaneous approach - which means that the history of Crowby is pretty much unwritten between roughly 1997 and 2001. A few cold cases for DCI Jacobson’s old age maybe?

 

Another difference between A STUDY IN DEATH and your other novels is length. It’s about a hundred pages shorter - partly accounted for by the cuts between scenes. You’ve not used that telegraphic style again - what do you think are its advantages and disadvantages?

I was still fairly under the influence of my academic background when I wrote A STUDY IN DEATH. To a certain degree, the book was a formal experiment - drawing on the structures of classic noir merged with classic police procedural and adapting them to the Crowby locale. The book won some decent reviews but nobody really picked up on those aspects - despite the presence of a couple of femme fatales in key roles and sundry losers spilling out all over the narrative. One feature of this formalism was length: the noir greats really wrote novellas more than novels in terms of word count. The books that followed have been much more from the heart than from the head. I tell stories these days - and stories take longer to tell than minor literary experiments do.

 

Your narrative is mostly told through indirect stream of consciousness - we follow the thoughts or impressions of one character in most scenes. But you also tend to use narrative reversal - suddenly having unexpected events happen or be done by someone. Now if we knew someone was thinking that’s what they were going to do it wouldn’t be unexpected and shocking, so how do you reconcile the two methods? Does it make your job as an author much more difficult?

 Everything I’ve done that’s expanded the scope and ambition of the books has made them harder to write. And this aspect is no exception. So many police-based crime novels stay out of the heads of everyone except the central police characters. That’s never been my approach. I want to be inside everyone’s head and to put the reader in there too. Which gives me a nice challenge in genuinely following a character’s stream of consciousness without destroying the elements of intrigue and mystery in the plot. What’s essential is to ensure that the reader’s reaction is oh yeah, of course when a character does something that they hadn’t seen coming. How that’s accomplished is pretty much a trade secret - so I’ll say no more about it in the absence of a fat cheque from the Shots collective.

 

Book Jacket, Making A Killing

I was very impressed by your use of a “family annihilator” in PERFECTLY DEAD, one reason being your uniqueness in using this modern crime. You researched the arms trade for MAKING A KILLING, how did you research family annihilators?

 My research methods are fairly uniform across the areas that I’ve looked at so far. I’ll start with the mainstream media - newspapers, TV, the Internet - and then move on to more specialised sources such as academic and scientific journals. Usually that’s enough to answer my questions. But sometimes I’ll need to speak directly to relevant experts. Again, having been an academic researcher, these techniques are pretty much second-nature to me. And most people - if you flatter them first - like to tell writers about what they do or what they know. That’s only one part of the story of course. If we take the aspect of PERFECTLY DEAD you’ve asked about as an instance, once I’d explored the specialist literature on the topic, I had to imagine my way into the head of the family killer and find a way to convey that experience to the reader. That’s what fiction is ultimately - an act of imagination beyond just ‘journalistic’ fact-finding.

 

I believe you’re still unique in featuring a “family annihilator”. How does it feel to be ahead of the crowd when other authors are still re-using copycat killers?

 I hadn’t realised that until you told me. It feels nice, basically - though my reasons for writing about a particular theme are nothing to do with what other writers are up to and everything to do with finding a story that absorbs and grips me enough that I want to spend a year or eighteen months of my life telling it. Writing fiction isn’t easy. If anyone tells you different, they’re either a liar or a crap writer (or, more than likely, both). So it’s vital that I care about what I’m writing. Otherwise I’d never finish a book.

 

Industry in Crowby is very advanced - share-dealing software development, aero parts, and satellite television systems are all in the background of your novels. The motives of the murderers, rapists and thieves all seem very base. Very few individuals in Crowby seem to have any finer feelings. You have a background in philosophy - are you trying to make a point, or have you simply adopted a very cynical attitude to the world you have made?

 Crowby, like the rest of modern Britain, isn’t an easy place to live in, despite the fact that most of us are getting richer by the day from working in the kind of industries you mention. Poverty of the spirit as much as anything else. And people just trying to get by as best they can. I don’t think you’re right though to suggest that it’s a landscape totally devoid of goodness or of heroes and heroines. They’re just not the obvious and unbelievable kind you get in Hollywood or in a different kind of crime novel. Sheryl, the single mother in PERFECTLY DEAD, is a heroine. So is her daughter. In the same book, Charlie - even though he’s involved in a couple of vicious crimes - isn’t somebody who’s beyond redemption in my view,. And Jacobson keeps tripping over little pockets of civility here and there (Kenneth Grant and his wife in MAKING A KILLING for instance).

 

Your main police protagonist, DCI Frank Jacobson, has his marriage collapse between the first two books, maintains an affection for his daughter, and a liking for beer. He doesn’t seem to have any other sympathies - I don’t find him, or most of the other officers sympathetic - do you think I should?

 [actually his marriage collapsed - off stage - even before book one] I like him. I especially like his black sense of humour and his complete inability to suffer fools gladly. Whether you like him or not is up to you. Some readers and reviewers agree with you about him. For others he’s a highly sympathetic character and he’s even a sex symbol for some female readers. Personally, I think the point about Jacobson is that he’s not a conventionally ‘nice’ person (neither is his creator most probably) but he has qualities which are far more important and badly-needed than that: Jacobson is on a quest for truth and never flinches from looking at the world without comforting illusions about himself or others. Truth-seeking isn’t everyone’s cup of tea of course - and the crime shelves are heaving with escapist comfort-food for those who prefer it.

 

Staying with the police, do you think that you are less tolerant of the force than, say, Ian Rankin or John Harvey, are with their police characters? (I’ve avoided most of Reginald Hill’s work because he seems to condone Dalziell and Pascoe’s boorish behaviour).

 I think my books have an element of anti-police sentiment - or at least scepticism. Jacobson has a moral chalk line that he never crosses (‘you didn’t fit up, you didn’t beat up, but otherwise you did what was necessary,’ he says in PERFECTLY DEAD) but I doubt that you’d want to be on the wrong side of him. Further down the mix in the books, there’s often a presumption that police corruption and shoddy practice are around somewhere in the margins of the story. I think that world-wide - and not referring to the writers you’ve mentioned - police procedurals probably occupy one of the more gung-ho and reactionary spaces inside crime fiction - and I’m certainly not interested in making a further contribution along those lines. Jacobson is as hard as nails when he wants to be. But he’s also pro-abortion, pro-drug legalisation, anti-death penalty and a paid-up Guardian reader. Discuss.

 

You’re slightly peculiar in the names you give characters, quite a lot of them are also the names of minor figures in the public eye (“Mick Hume” is the one that stands out - he was a member of the Revolutionary Communist Party and editor of Living Marxism magazine who now writes for The Times. You’ve given it to a CID officer). How do you assign names to your characters and where do you find them?

 Naming is mysterious. I’ve often started working with a character, knowing that I hadn’t yet uncovered their ‘real’ name - which will literally fall into my head at a later point in writing. The same is true for the transition from the working title for a book to the ‘true’ title that usually manifests itself some way in. ‘Mick Hume’ was just the right name for this character - and I used it despite the fact that, for some readers, it might have the fairly incongruous connotation you suggest. There’s a petty criminal in my new book by the name of Tony Blair (although that probably was a deliberate, conscious choice). Do you think I should send Living Marxism a copy in the hopes of a review?

 

“Iain McDowall” is not your real name. If you ever write a non-series novel do you think you’ll take a third name?

 That will probably be a marketing decision (which is partly what Iain McDowall was/ is). I’m saving my real name for my ‘literary’ novel - if I ever go downmarket in that grubby direction.

 

“Iain McDowall” have a different voice to the one that orders your food and beer and speaks to the milkman?

 There’s quite a lot of overlap in how we see the world. Iain is funnier than me - since he has time to work at his ad-libs and humour. But then he needs to be - he’s also a lot more intense a lot more of the time.

 

Your first novel said “in the tradition of (Ian) Rankin” on its cover. Which authors had you read and admired before you started your own work? Did you follow the style of any particular author? Or copy anybody’s working methods?

 Like most writers, I have very little control over the marketing department. And I certainly had no control over their decision to market the first book in that way. I wish they hadn’t: to my way of thinking, “fresh, original voice” beats “nearly as good as somebody else” every time. As I’ve said, I was thinking fairly academically about the concept of ‘noir’ when I wrote the first book (the good bits are where I forgot about it). I discovered John Harvey’s novels when A STUDY IN DEATH was approximately two thirds complete. So Resnick was about as close to a contemporary influence as I got. As for working methods you just have to find what works for you - and that’s highly unlikely to be how someone else works. When I hear other writers talking about how they write my usual reactions are disbelief and amazement - especially as regards those precious souls who’re too unworldly to use a computer.

 

Which authors do you admire now, in crime and out?

 I read a lot less fiction since I’ve been writing it than I did previously. I think that maybe reading fiction and writing fiction fulfil the same emotional need; so that if you’re doing a lot of one, you don’t need to do as much of the other. (McDowall’s top tip for struggling writers: put that f***ing book down and get on with it!). That said, I’ve got in to Patricia Highsmith’s work in a major way over the last couple of years. Her prose is a fount of nearly every writerly virtue: stylish, profound and occasionally unhinged. I’m actually slowing down with her books now since, evidently, there’s only a finite number of them in existence. I also like Nicci French. Nobody puts women in better peril. Outside of crime, I’m currently looking at Michel Houllebecq and Annie Proulx. I still also spend reading time with my academic interests in philosophy and computing (both of which are a lot more fun when they’re not your day job).

 

Book Jacket, Killing For England

Your fourth Crowby novel is due to appear later this year, entitled “KILLING FOR ENGLAND”. What can you tell us to make us long for its appearance?

 Racially-motivated murders. Far right extremists. Paranoid Schizophrenia. Drug abuse. Marital infidelity. And a particularly nasty scene featuring a kitchen knife. But look at it this way: at least it prevents the marketing department from billing it as being in ‘the tradition of Alexander McCall Smith.’

 

Will the new novel again make significant some item from the news that has not been particularly significant before, as you did with repressive small arms sales and family killers?

 The extent to which far-right groups operate with a degree of impunity in the UK surprised me when I researched the novel. And, as with the previous books, I don’t write about stuff that couldn’t actually happen or hasn’t actually happened. Which should give readers pause for thought. Maybe they’ll take a closer look at that slightly strange neighbour of theirs. The one who frequents the same costume shop as Prince Harry....

 

A paperback edition will follow the hardback next spring. As your past hardback editions now seem to sell at a premium on the second-hand market I will be buying the new hardback as soon as I can. What is it like to be an investment?

 I’m totally fine with it. Provided the investment pays off while I’m still young enough to enjoy my hard-earned cut.

 

Iain McDowall, thank you.


 

 

 


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IaIn McDowell



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